For the penultimate concert of their 2015/16 season The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst played an intriguing program of two Czech works in the first half, followed after intermission by a magisterial performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto, with veteran Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist. It was all beautifully played, but the Janáček and Beethoven works showed conductor and orchestra at the top of their game.

Rudolf Buchbinder © Philipp Horak
Rudolf Buchbinder
© Philipp Horak
Antonín Dvořák's symphonic poem The Wood Dove, written in 1896 as part of a flurry of activity in the genre after his last symphony was completed, was based on a grotesque tale by Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben, in which a grieving young window meets a young man while she is following her husband's coffin to its grave. The widow and young man fall in love at first sight and marry. Some time later the woman hears a wood dove singing near her husband's grave. She is struck with remorse and drowns herself. It transpires that she had poisoned her first husband.

The music is quintessential Dvořák in its tunefulness and development. Gentle string music and muted horns representing the funeral procession open the work, followed by a perky tune played by two off-stage trumpets, and a series of dances based on folk-ish rhythms. As the musical drama increases there is menacing music from the solo bass clarinet, and a return to the opening music, but this time played in the winds. Very soft string music and rustling, perfectly coordinated trills seem to represent the woman's remorse. A solo note in the horn punctuated by a single harp note closes the work with a sense of uncertainty. Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra captured the mercurial nature and abstract musical representations of the symphonic poem's program. It would not have been necessary to know the work's back-story to enjoy this performance.

Welser-Möst has an affinity for the works of Leoš Janáček, heard most notably in Cleveland in his brilliant performance of the composer's The Cunning Little Vixen in 2014. He did not disappoint in this concert's suite from Janáček's last opera, From the House of the Dead, which takes place in a Siberian prison camp. The suite, extracted by conductor František Jílek, comprises three episodes from the opera.

Janáček's stylistic trademarks are here: fragmentary repeated motifs used as ostinati, but not developed in any traditional way, along with soaring orchestrations. The first movement, the prelude to the opera, was originally written as a violin concerto, but Janáček repurposed it here; hence, a prominent solo violin part, brilliantly played by concertmaster William Preucil. Throughout the suite, Janáček writes unconventional rhythmic passages and treacherous rests just waiting for an inattentive player. The second movement had the sense of a demented polka. The third movement from the end of the opera was radiantly cathartic in a glorious major key. Welser-Möst and orchestra caught each mercurial moment along the way as part of a brilliant whole.

A majestic and cohesive performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major "Emperor" with Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder as the soloist filled the second half of the concert. Beethoven composed the concerto in 1809 after his deafness had proceeded to the point where he was no longer able to give the first performance himself. Yet in this concerto Beethoven expanded the concerto form to an extent not heard before, in part due to the new capabilities that had appeared in the piano itself, with the possibility of the solo instrument being heard above a larger and louder orchestra. The first movement is the longest in any of Beethoven's concertos. The languid phrases of the second movement weave between solo and orchestra. And the final Rondo is full of irrepressible joy.

From the first arpeggiated entrance in the opening movement, Buchbinder played with commanding authority, with powerful and massive passages, but equally subtle quiet moments. His playing throughout was notable for its clarity whatever the dynamic. Scales and other passage work were matched, and even in the loudest moments, one never had the sense that Buchbinder was "banging"; his technique was always controlled. He had an unerring sense of rubato and flexibility of phrase, both of which were matched by conductor and orchestra. Welser-Möst led a cohesive performance throughout the three movements.

Many of these same adjectives describing Buchbinder can be applied to The Cleveland Orchestra. Indeed, it is hard to think of another pianist whose musical ethos matches so well to that of this ensemble, with unity and refinement of sound and subtlety of phrasing. When the "best of" lists are compiled for the 2015/16 Cleveland music season, this performance must surely be among them.

****1